Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Beyond Charity

What is charity?

I was looking at the definitions of charity and most all of them talked about a person or organization with resources giving to those in need of those resources. This generally is regarded as a good thing, especially among Christians. We love charity, partly because of the good we perceive is being done, and partly because of the good it makes us feel.
But I think the question we need to ask is - how is this charity being viewed from the other end? Does it lead to those same good feelings we have when we do charity? By definition charity labels the receiver as one who lacks. This automatically creates a culture of haves and have nots. Recieving charity can be a very degrading action to hard working families who find themselves struggling. Often families will resist charity until the come to a point where they feel they have no where else to turn. It is for them the recognition of failure and often the resignation of their worth and ability to provide for themselves. This often leads to people becoming dependent on others- often not because they actually are incapable of providing but because they are being taught that they are incapable.

So what then do we do? It also doesn't seem right to sit back and watch others suffer when we can help, just because we don't want to create dependency. These are thoughts that I have been wrestling with lately. A family in our neighborhood has, for about the past six months had their gas turned off. This means no heat, hot water, or use of the stove, which they have been able to manage with through the summer but have begun to really worry with the coming cold.

The father in this family does drywall on houses and business has been slow. He drives thirty minutes to work, then often sits for 2 to 3 hours to find out whether there is work for the day, and in the past months more often than not there hasn't been work. His wife stays home and takes care of their four children under the age of eight. The fact that they know only a little bit of English compounds the problem, making it more difficult for either of them to find extra work. We began to feel a desire to help but began to wrestle with these questions of how to help. We also realized that the debt they owed to the gas company was more than we ourselves could pay even if that was our desire. So after wrestling with how to proceed, we began to ask friends and neighbors who we knew cared about this family if they wanted to get involved. People began to donate and the total amount given turned out to be ten dollars over the total cost of the debt. We then called the gas company and made a payment, clearing the debt, and allowing the family to turn the gas back on.

As we talked to family we shared specifically that this is not an act of charity, but instead an act of community. We began to help them dream of ways that that they too can take part in helping others in the neighborhood in the same way that this community of neighbors came around them to help.

We realized that when framed as an act of community, helping families in this way can be life giving, instead of life taking. This family now doesn't feel shame for being unable to provide for themselves but instead they feel as though they are part of a community that loves and cares for them, and which they also are able to take part in. In this way, instead of this act creating a culture of haves and have nots, it places us all on the same level, with the recognition that if we begin to share within our community there is enough to go around. This then is empowering to them as they dream of ways that they can use their resources to serve others in our community. These resources go beyond just monetary wealth to their use of time, skills, knowledge, and connections for the sake of others.

As we finished talking, the parents called the kids into the living room and asked " Do you remember when we had hot water in the showers? We are going to be able to have that again." One of the little boys, not remembering at first, said, "no, what is that?" But then before he could be answered he realized what they meant and began to jump up and down with excitement. As we were leaving they told us in their broken English, "We're going to start crying as soon as you leave. Thank you so much."

Interactions like this continue to make me realize how vitally important it is to hold in tension our desire to help with the recognition that help can can actually hurt if we aren't careful.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To start off the summer Amanda and I got married on June 4th! It was really great to have our families and many friends in town to celebrate with us.
It was an amazing time to pause and reflect on the ways that God has brought us together.

Next, things have been moving forward on the restoration of the Franklin Center. On June 25th we brought the neighborhood together for a potluck celebration at the Franklin Center. Over 100 neighbors ate and celebrated the Franklin Center together and began to dream of a new future for the building and the broader neighborhood. The neighbors gathered in small groups and discussed questions such as: Why is this building important for the life of our neighborhood, or - How could the restoration of this building change or restore our neighborhood? There were three rounds of discussion with sharing from each group afterwords. The time came to a close with a video of neighbors telling the history and dreams for the future of the building. The movie and evening finished with a chorus of cheers- “Si Se Puede” or yes we can chanted over and over.

Since then we have begun to have neighborhood work days for residents to come and help in taking part in restoring the beauty of this building.

This summer has also been filled by hosting youth groups coming to Argentine for mission trips or what we call missional journeys. These trips include a number of different things. First, the students helped us as we remodel the new Youthfront School of Formation home that we bought in the spring to house our college students starting this fall. But beyond simply doing work in the neighborhood these trips are an opportunity for the students to be immersed into the life of the neighborhood and begin to break down stereotypes that students may have. This is done through trying to have times to work, play and eat along side the our neighbors.

Please pray for us as we finish up this summer and prepare for a new round of college students to move in late August.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

What does transformation look like?

Recently at a neighborhood meeting I was talking to everyone on a very philosophical level about how we want to be doing community development. When I finished I asked for people's thoughts. Mary, a middle aged African American lady responded with, “I think we need to do a car wash.” My first reaction was to want to say, “That’s not what we are talking about here. We aren’t talking about specific small projects but the theoretical ideas behind how we want to be organizing neighbors.”

But then I began to realize that thinking philosophically, strategic planning, and goal setting around an issue are foreign to Mary. This just isn’t the way that she thinks. Coming from the middle class it is easy to fall into viewing this kind of attitude and way of thinking negatively. We like to believe that this lack of vision and drive are what continues to keep the poor in their place and that if only they would begin to be organized and implement some strategic planning in their life they would begin to see some upward mobility. But my hunch is that we are not completely right in our thinking.

For decades middle class Christians have been quick to define what success looks like in the lives of the poor. We are quick to think that if only they would look more like us then they would begin to have their life on track. Maybe we need to start more fundamentally by rethinking what poverty is. What if we thought of poverty not as simply a lack of material resources but instead as a lack of Shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word used throughout the Old Testament to mean peace, wholeness, and everything being the way that it was intended to be. When we redefine poverty as a lack of Shalom we begin to realize that there is extreme poverty in both the material rich and material poor. When poverty is defined this way then our definitions of success and transformation change completely. We are then able in the case of Mary to recognize that some of her simplistic thinking is healthy and has the ability correct some of my faulty goal driven thinking. Her ways of thinking begin to slow me down to not only be focused on projects, networking, and results but instead to sit, listen, and be present to my neighbors and friends. It seems that only when we recognize our mutual brokenness can we begin together to dream what restoration might look like in both our lives.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Franklin Center Update

I have written about the Franklin Center in Former posts (Click here if you haven't gotten to read them) but wanted to give you an update on how progress is going.

We have gone through the legal process to reform the board of directors of the Franklin Center Inc. - the non-profit that owns the building but dismantled and left the building abandoned. We are now filing out the necessary papers with the state for the board to be reinstated and then we will be able to begin the process of restoration of this building.

We talked to about 60% of the houses in the neighborhood and found 99% of them to be excited about the project. 75 different neighbors have expressed specific interest in taking part in this process of restoration. Some are carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, and cooks.

We have also identified 10-12 individuals from the neighborhood that have shown excitement and passion and want to take a leadership role in this process.

We are having our first meeting with this group of leaders tomorrow night!

Also we are planning on April 30th to have a party/neighborhood meeting to kick off this process of restoration. Because who wouldn't rather come to a party than a meeting?

If you have been wondering - here are some pictures of the current state of the Franklin Center.

My friends Coop and Linda

Coop and his wife Linda probably fit most stereotypes. They are a white couple who live in a run down trailer park. They are heavy smokers, probably consistently drink too much and usually have the TV on too loud. Linda and Coop like many others living poverty have been taught through experience that they don’t have much to offer. I met Linda and Coop as we were talking to folks about the Franklin Center, a beautiful historic yet rundown and abandoned building near where we live. We were asking people what they remember about the Franklin Center from the time when it was a vibrant community center. We asked what they would like to see done with the building now. As we began talking to Linda and Coop the excitement within them began to visibly grow. Coop talked about playing football with the kids in the trailer park and how he wishes that there were somewhere for them to play and have fun. As with all of the conversations we had we didn’t stop with asking their desires for the Franklin Center. If we stopped there we would only further reinforce the idea that they are in need of someone else’s service, that they do not have much to offer. So instead we then began to ask how they could join with other neighbors to see these dreams that they have for the Franklin Center become a reality. Linda and Coop as with many other neighbors were a bit surprised by the question and needed a moment to think. But in their case it didn’t take long for the ideas to start flowing. Soon Coop was talking about the ways that he is skilled in remodeling and how he would love to help in the process of fixing up the building. They talked about wanting to organize meetings and helping us talk to everyone else in the trailer park.

When I went back to talk to them to see if either wanted to take more of a leadership role in this process I was met by a friendly Coop who began to tear up as I invited him to meet with us. He went on to tell me how much this means to him and how he is wasn't going to drink any alcohol on tuesday because he wants to be fully sober for our meeting. As I talked to him I began to realize how dignifying to Coop this offer of leadership really is. To him this is much more than a meeting, to Coop this is an opportunity to show that he has worth.

As we move forward in this process of bringing life back to the Franklin Center we are beginning to realize that many in this neighborhood are just longing for someone to ask them to help; desiring for someone to believe that they have something to offer. However we also realize that this is messy. We realize that these folks bring baggage. We realize that Coop and Linda even with all of their enthusiasm may not be reliable or dependable. But we also realize that the only goal here is not the completion of the project. The point is the process - the process of seeing new life emerge from the mess and the brokenness, the process of reconciliation and of the formation of community within this neighborhood that are all a small taste of the Kingdom of God. Because if we fix up an old building without this messy formational process then what have we really accomplished?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

This semester.

We finished a great semester here with five students the week before Christmas. We had a semester full of growth and learning for both the students and those of us leading the program.

This semester, however, looks a bit different for us. We are not having any students this semester in order to better prepare ourselves for the fall. We are working with Midamerica Nazarene University to expand the academic offerings available to the students for college credit. This in turn would give students more choices and allow for a larger number of students to take part in the program. We are also working to form a long-term community in the neighborhood which can last year around, not simply when students are here. We currently have six families living in the neighborhood, meeting together and partnering in ministry. Some of these families are staff of Youthfront specifically working with the Youthfront School of Formation and others just moved into the neighborhood to be part of this Christian community that is forming and to take part in life and ministry together. The formation of this community comes with real sense of excitement as we think about being able to invite students each semester into a community that already exists instead of attempting to create something new each semester. In addition, we are working to make our neighborhood involvement sustainable so that not only can the students join in our community but they also can join us in the relationships and work that we are doing throughout the neighborhood. We believe that this leads to a much more faithful and transformative model in which relationships can be built and nurtured that last longer than a single semester.

Christmas twenty-ten

Here are some pictures from amanda and my trips to Iowa to see her family and California to see my family, also a couple from her brothers wedding in Texas.